Thursday, 17 February 2011

Reverend Gary Davis: Twas Brillig

Friday 25 February 1966
Little Theater, Berkeley (Florence Schwimly Little Theatre): Rev Gary Davis
Jabberwock, 2905 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley: Wry Catchers, Ale Ekstrum, Country Joe and the Fish, Paul Armstrong, Dan Paik. Unscheduled: Rev Gary Davis (nominally a benefit to raise the $1100 bail for Bill Ehlert and Bill Tolman who were busted for possession of pot on February 23 and had been held at Santa Rita County Prison)
ED Denson from the Berkeley Barb (Vol 2, No 9: March 4, 1966): Last Friday the Rev. Gary Davis came to Berkeley and gave his third (Brillig-sponsored) concert here during the present folk revival. It is likely to have been his last, and those who went to see the Byrds instead missed a chance to see an unforgettable, even unbelievable performance.
Two years ago Artesian Productions was destroyed by its double bill of the Rev. and Jimmy Reed, and the Brillig experience may do the same for it. I attended both, and can say that through no fault of its own Brillig managed to put on a better show, or lesser disaster, depending upon your point of view.
But as a promotion which was to be the springboard for later i concerts the whole idea was suicidal from the beginning, for the persistence in Berkeley's folk mind of the memory of the Artesian show was a crippling handicap.
The inexperience of Brillig, a front group for the Jabberwock, combined with the malevolence of nature to ensure that almost every thing went wrong. The publicity photo used on the poster was terrible, the Byrds were booked into the adjacent Community Theater on the same night and for some reason the date of the Davis concert was not changed, the flu epidemic hit hard, and the evening of the concert it rained.
As a final blow Bill Elhert, the active agent of Brillig, was busted two days before the performance in what appears to be one of the shabbiest political busts for grass that the narcos have pulled. These little things add up, and the only blessing is that the concert was a one-night stand for it seems unlikely that five of the 130 who showed up for the first night would have come back for a second.
The show limped off to a good start; although Elhert understandably preoccupied, had neglected to discover how to operate the sound equipment or house lights, and the first few minutes contained some unexpected fluctuations in these, especially when the building manager gave a hand by turning the volume higher than the Byrds could have stood. Davis was singing well, however, and the audience showed no signs of restlessness.
The Rev. has been called the best living folk guitarist, and in his style he is. His voice, while rough and cracked after a lifetime of street singing, has a power unrivalled among the living blues singers, and the sheer force of his performance covers any imperfections and laves you spellbound.
For the first 45 minutes that he sang it was one of the best performances I have attended. The songs were for die most part simple but like most religious folk songs filled with a vivid imagery that has a cumulative effect on the audience. They seemed to sink deeper and deeper, and the spell was not broken by Gary's poor harmonica playing, or Elhert's foolish attempt to get the audience to clap in time to the music,
Then the' fatal mistake of the evening was made. Elhert called an intermission.
Two things occurred during the next 15 minutes which set the stage for final catastrophe. The Byrds concert got out which released hordes of young chicklets who kept thinking that they could find the Byrds by coming though the Davis concert. This also released the critics for the Chronicle and the Examiner, both of whom after being told of the first half seemed well disposed towards the second half and waited to see the Rev.
The gods were having their little joke, however, for the Rev. had caught cold during his 3-day stay in Berkeley prior to the performance. During the initial few songs he had stopped to wipe his nose every now and then, and now in the intermission he dosed himself liberally with his folk medicine: Seagram’s 7 with a lot of peppermint candy in it. By the time he hit the stage again he was getting high. Gary has a way of tantalizing the audience when he is drunk, because he almost begins to play and then thinks of something he wants to say. It seems like he must play in a moment and that moment is pushed further and further down the evening. It rapidly became evident what was going to happen, and my mind began to blow, so my memories may be a little confused in their order, but as I recall the second half of the show Gary launched into a long sermon/conversation about men and women.
Elhert paced around and finally in an attempt to get the Rev. to sing came out through the curtains on stage, to scattered applause, and whispered to Gary that no music, no whiskey. Infuriated, the Rev. tried to smash his guitar over Ehlert’s head, muttering that nobody could talk to him that way. After a long tableau during which time no one moved much, Davis realized he was on stage and pretended it was a joke.
As the sermon continued Gleason fled, and 10 minutes later Elwood joined him, asking that it be recorded that the Examiner outlasted the Chronicle.
No sooner was he out of the door then Gary began to sing. He sang a long blues called “She's Funny That Way" which alternates sex with inconclusive verses and is repetitious. It went on for a long time. After some more talking, he sang it again.
By this time the audience was yelling for him to sing gospel, and two hippies were especially vocal. He invited them to come up and help him sing, which one did. That was the high point of the second half, until the guy got tired of making repartee between the lines and went back to the audience. Gary talked some more about pistols, sin and sex, and finally tried to get the audience to sing along with him, which at length part of it did.
Surprisingly few people left, and those that did probably were misled by the advertising into expecting a serious performance or real gospel singing with no side excursions. They looked very unhappy. Towards the end of the evening Gary began to sing again, and whoever was working the lights changed the colors as the Rev. changed chords. It was a nice psychedelic touch, and the Rev. and the lights got two encores.
After the concert Gary was visited in his dressing room by a few fans and discovering some chicks among them he lectured on girls should give a man What He Needs, and how about it, at which point they left. At last the Seagram's was gone and the slow progress toward the waiting car began.
Having gotten up the Rev. got into a head butting contest with one of the people leading him, and with one thing and another it was a half hour before he got to the car.
Later that evening he turned up much drunker singing sloppy blues at the Jabberwock.
I enjoyed the evening very much but I wouldn't have paid to see it, and would not go again for free. The amusing part was the total collapse of everybody's expectations this rapidly transcends being painful and just becomes outrageously funny. The tragedy is that the Rev. Gary Davis is a gifted performer capable of some of the best music of any of the living folk musicians. Instead the audience is treated to a sideshow which Is degrading to the artist, and for the most part a drag.
This is true of others besides the Rev when they perform, and normally comes from an almost total misunderstanding of the situation. In the Rev’s case he simply has not adapted to being an artist for audiences more sophisticated than those on the street corners of Harlem, and the problem is made much worse by the encouragement given to him to continue his burlesque and Uncle Toming by the younger hippies.
Quite naturally the blame in the end must fall upon the promoters who are afraid to tell the performer what they expect, or worse yet; don't realize what they should expect. - Ed Denson

Unscheduled, Reverend Gary Davis plays (drunk on Seagram's 7 with peppermint candy) at the Jabberwock later in the evening. The Reverend Gary Davis had played the "Brillig" presented show at the Little Theater, Berkeley (Florence Schwimly Little Theatre) earlier in the evening. Whilst visiting Berkeley, the Reverend stayed with members of Country Joe and the Fish in Mrs Sherrill's adjacent apartment building on Russell Street. Barry Melton recalls the visit of the good Reverend.
In the early days of Country Joe and the Fish, me and most of other guys in the band lived next door to "The Jabberwock," a folk music nightclub in Berkeley. The club was owned by a big, friendly guy named Bill "Jolly Blue" Ehlert. The Jabberwock was only a postage-stamp sized place, so when Jolly Blue got an offer to do a Reverend Gary Davis show, he decided to promote it in the Berkeley Community Theatre. We were all in awe of "Rev" and it was decided that while he was in Berkeley, he would stay in our house. I remember he stayed there several days, as we sat about the kitchen playing music hour by hour. I think he'd played the "Ash Grove" down in L.A. and had dead time between playing there and playing in Berkeley--this was in late 1966 or early 1967.
And, by the way, Easy Ed's quote from Jerry Garcia expressing the belief that Rev had nothing to do with San Francisco psychedelia is stone wrong. The Rev DID participate in the psychedelic aspect of the San Francisco scene, at least to a limited degree while staying at our house.
Because I was the band's lead guitar player and--I believe--the guy in the band most in awe of Rev, I surrendered my room and bed for Rev to stay in. Things were fine for the first few days he was there: We'd wait for him to get up in the morning, cook him breakfast, take him on whatever errands he had to do, etc., and sit around, smoke, and play music all day and into the night. It was easy to forget that Rev was blind as we sat around the kitchen table, listening to his songs and stories hour after hour. Then the night of the big concert came and, as was the long-standing musical custom, the Rev was paid in cash at the conclusion of the gig. He brought me with him to collect the money and made me read off the denomination of each bill was it was counted into his hand, and I remember him stashing the larger portion of his money into the sound hole of his Gibson J-200, while leaving some travelling money rolled up in his pockets.
Well, the next morning I woke up and remember having to go into my room to get some clothes or something out of my chest of drawers. I was very quiet, as I could hear Rev snoring and didn't want to wake him. Well, I got whatever it was and I was headed toward the door when I heard in a commanding voice,"Don't move or you're dead!". I turned around to see Rev with a .38 revolver in his hand pointed in my general direction, but sort of moving around so as to cover a wider target area. I remember screaming something to the effect of, "No--don't shoot." Rev replied, "One wrong move and you're dead." Well, then I started talking a mile a minute..."Rev, it's me, it's Barry, don't shoot Rev...I was only getting something from my chest of drawers..." Finally, Rev said, "Is that you, Barry?" The incident was soon over, and I had escaped with me life. I guess, from his perspective, it must have been kind of weird to be alone, blind, on the road 3,000 miles from home and rooming with a bunch of lunatic young musicians many years his junior. But to this day, the picture of Reverend Gary Davis that sticks in my mind the most is early in the morning, half-awake and blind as a bat, with a .38 in his hand pointed in my general direction. It was one of the most frightening moments of my life. I'll never forget it.